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Tips on getting movies from the library: Making the most of a free video option

Consumer Reports News: March 25, 2009 06:08 AM

Getting movies from the library can be a great option to trim your entertainment budget, and so a possible cost-saving alternative to paying video-rental services like those we recently rated (Ratings available to subscribers). That’s in spite of libraries’ drawbacks as video sources, which were highlighted in a recent Consumer Reports survey.

Here are tips on making the most of borrowing movies from the library, including suggestions from readers who commented on our original blog—and some more results from that survey:

Temper your selection expectations. In our survey, libraries scored particularly poorly on selection of titles (with 16% highly satisfied) and in-stock availability of titles (with 13% highly satisfied), However, in my experience, albeit with one of the country's biggest library systems, most titles I look for are available, at least eventually. And I'm sometimes pleasantly surprised to find relative obscurities—for example, 1970s titles from a favorite director, Britain’s Mike Leigh.

Commenting on our blog, Michael Spadoni wrote “true, you can't get the newest DVD's at the library. But it's a great resource for classic films, the occasional foreign picture, and TV series. [For example], I've recently checked out sets of short-lived but much-loved shows such as Steven Bochco's "Murder One" (ABC, 1995-97) and "The Comeback" with Lisa Kudrow, which lasted just one season on HBO."

Temper your format expectations. At the New York library (and, I suspect, most others) titles are only on DVD or VHS tape, with no high-def Blu-ray discs yet. Those VHS tapes, with analog images that are inferior to DVD, might help explain why fewer than half (43%) of library borrowers we surveyed were highly satisfied with the picture quality of the videos they borrowed.

However, at least some libraries are beginning to acquire a limited number of Blu-ray titles—including the Cleveland Public Library, according to Toby Radloff’s comment to our blog.

Be patient. The library isn't the best option if you want new releases when they're still new; only 8 percent of survey respondents were highly satisfied with the availability of recently-released feature films. In my experience, the library gets titles new to DVD less quickly than do pay video-rental options, and there's usually a stampede of renters when they first hit the collection. However, wait a while and movies can become available fairly fast. For example, this month I requested "Iron Man," a blockbuster that went to DVD in late September, and it reached my branch within a week.

Go online. This is great way to sample what is, and isn't, available from your library. Many library systems, including New York's, have websites with searchable online access to their entire catalog of titles. Once you register your account, you can usually make hold requests online and have titles shipped from any branch to your own for easy pickup.

That ease of use was a clincher for library rentals for David, who suggested in a blog comment that "with the catalog online and so many parts of the process automated, I would encourage people to explore [their] options. Now that Inter-Library Loan is getting better, the selection has improved a lot."

Such convenience counts in getting movies; indeed, in our survey it was, after price, the strongest driver of satisfaction with movie services.

For me, library rentals could hardly be easier, with my library branch only a block from my home. If time allows, I even do some old-fashioned browsing of the DVD racks, just as I did at the video store that recently closed in my neighborhood.

That browsing aspect of a library also appealed to Michael Spadoni, who said a plus to getting movies there was to find "occasional gems on the shelves." That's an almost-quaint experience that isn't present with the newer rental options, such as Netflix or Redbox video kiosks.

—Paul Reynolds

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